Highland News Leader

Highland to take ‘wait-and-see’ approach while state mulls cuts

Highland was intentionally not represented at a press conference last week, when Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert and mayors from 10 other metro-east cities said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed cuts in state funding would have a “devastating” affect on local communities.

Highland City Manager Mark Latham said he missed last Wednesday’s press conference at Belleville City Hall in part because he did not want to be part of a “bashing match.”

“I prefer to take a more conservative, wait-and-see approach,” he said. “…Besides, there are only so many ways you can skin a cat.”

Rauner has proposed a 50 percent cut to funds that go to municipal governments.

If passed, those cuts would have about a $500,000 impact on Highland, according to Latham.

Latham said he believes the city will have to consider making cuts to their police, street and alley, and building departments if the cuts take place.

Rauner, in his first budget address, called for local governments to tighten their belts, and proposed a 50 percent cut in the Local Government Distributive Fund, income tax transfers to municipalities, to help close the state’s $6 billion budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year.

“The governor has asked local communities to help him pass the ‘Turnaround Agenda’ to help restructure state government, which will make it more efficient and free up resources so reductions do not have to be as drastic,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in statement released in response to the mayors’ news conference.

“Years of irresponsible budgeting and insider deals have left Illinois with a $6 billion budget hole, and without structural reform, difficult decisions had to be made to get Illinois back on sound financial footing. The amount of money transferred to local governments has ballooned by 42 percent in the last decade and the reduction to local governments proposed in the budget puts Illinois in line with neighboring states.”

Rauner said local governments around the state have more than $15 billion in cash reserves. Highland, alone, has about $12 million in reserve, Latham said.

But Latham said he opposes using the city’s reserve funds for covering state funding cuts.

“I would prefer to save that money for a city emergency and any other natural disaster like a tornado,” he said.

Rauner’s “Turnaround Illinois Agenda” also calls for looking at “unfunded mandates.”

These types of mandates were cited by the area mayors as something they would like to get rid of, but Mascoutah Mayor Gerald Daugherty said, even if all of the estimated 235 mandates were removed, the savings would not make up for the funding cuts proposed by Rauner.

Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson said an example of an unfunded mandate is state directives on pension funding.

“They have put together a pension fund that is unsustainable. In the city of Columbia, our pension fund adds up to roughly half a million dollars. For a small town just under 10,000 people, that is a very large number for us to deal with.”

“We’re willing to sit down with legislators and work through this but over the years these unfunded mandates continue to cripple cities without us having any real say so into how they’re shifting the burden of payment on certain issues to municipalities.”

The local mayors hope to meet with Rauner, who they said may visit the metro-east early next month.

Other mayors who attended the news conference were Alton Mayor Brant Walker, Breese Mayor Charles Hilmes, Collinsville Mayor John Miller, Godfrey Mayor Mike McCormick, New Athens Mayor Richard Klein, Red Bud Mayor Tim Lowry and Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith.

The News-Democrat contributed to this report.